What Makes The Detroit Coney Hot Dog So Unique?

What is more satisfying than a charred hot dog after a swim at the pool? Just about everyone savors that burst of the sausage between sweet layers of bread. Hot dogs are a staple of American cuisine; you'll see them at barbecues and shopping centers, carnivals and ball games — even on street corners. Like most dishes, the hot dog has branched out from its simplest original form into unexpected variations with interesting toppings. Each permutation has its own notable feature, from using a particular type of frank to adding cream cheese.

The history of the hot dog is still debated, notes Smithsonian Magazine, but many agree that it was invented by Charles Feltman, a food stand vendor on Coney Island, in 1867. Today, though, people have a completely different idea of what a "Coney" dog is. The popularized version piled high with chili is actually a Detroit Coney hot dog — a name that might be confusing to some since Detroit is so far from New York's Coney Island. But, as Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm explain in their book "Coney Detroit," the Detroit Coney hot dog was actually an innovation that combined traditional Greek flavors with the original hot dog.

It's all in the sauce

The dish was likely spread by Greek and Macedonian immigrants who fell in love with the fast food after they came to America through Ellis Island. You may be wondering, however: What makes the Detroit Coney hot dog special? It's all in the chili. The Detroit Coney hot dog starts off with a normal beef frankfurter in a hot dog bun. Then, it's topped with beef chili, chopped raw onions, and a drizzle of yellow mustard. 

But what differentiates this from a good old chili dog? This beanless beef chili isn't just your standard: The signature condiment on a Detroit Coney hot dog is thought to be inspired by saltsa kima – a meaty sauce with sweet and savory ingredients that range from red wine to cinnamon — which Greek and Macedonian immigrants rightly realized would go great on the popular American snack (via Smithsonian Mag).

A standard chili dog often calls for a sprinkle of cheddar cheese or a squeeze of Cheez Whiz, but the Detroit Coney dog opts for yellow mustard. The combination of beef chili and tangy mustard creates a sharper flavor profile that cuts through the richness of the whole dog. The entire concoction is topped with raw onions, making the hot dog an all-encompassing sensory treat: spice from the chili, salt (and spice) from the mustard, crunch from the onions, and just a hint of sweetness from the buns.

Lafayette vs. American: a century-long beef

When Detroiters think of the Detroit Coney hot dog, two names likely come to mind: Lafayette and American. The two most famous Detroit Coney hot dogs can be found right next to each other in downtown Detroit. These businesses have been competing since their founding by Greek brothers William "Bill" Keros and Constantine "Gust" Keros (each sibling claims his establishment came first, notes Smithsonian Magazine).

The main difference between these two Detroit Coney hot dogs is their chili. Lafayette's chili is based on the Keros family recipe, while American Coney Island's is made at Detroit Chili Company, Yung and Grimm write. Opt for American if you want a little more spice, or Lafayette if you prefer the classic beefiness.

So which spot is better? It depends on what you're looking for, not just in the chili, but in a restaurant. American Coney Island is newer and flashier, observes The Metropolitan Detroit, with a more extensive menu that serves Greek dishes like gyros and pita plates. Lafayette Coney Island, meanwhile, stays more classic with its smaller interior and menu. Either way, both restaurants serve the iconic Detroit Coney hot dog with the same bright mustard and raw onions, and they're on the same block — so it's all too easy to try both and decide for yourself.